I was watching Gladiator not long ago, and it just hit me: I’ve seen this movie before. Or rather, I am seeing it again. Donald Trump is the Emperor Commodus. He’s all about show. He stages events (like Commodus choreographed a sword fight) to make himself look better than he is. He is swayed by popularity and what the crowds want. He’s vain. He’s petulant. He’s trying to turn Rome into a centralized empire with himself at the center of it. He plots and schemes. He has sycophants in the Senate (and some critics, who do not have the power to really stand up to him). Loyalty matters more than anything. Signing papers to do the work of governing the country is a bore to him. He is the father to his nation, and all the people are his adoring children.
What worries me is that we might expect a gladiator will arise and give everyone a great movie moment. My worry is that in the end he will be even worse than what we have because we’re so rattled right now by our Commodus. The fiction that Russell Crowe gave us in Gladiator was that that military person, laid low by the scheming of Marcus Aurelius’ son Commodus, could rise up as a democrat and a champion of the people. Is that likely? It is, after all, the messianic story, the one who can come down and deliver us. That’s what our movies prime us for. It’s a very American story – individual triumph over insurmountable odds.
I’m not sure that story is going to work anymore, at least not as a political tale. But it’s hard to pry apart the political story from the cinematic one, or the religious one.